KUALA LUMPUR: Jacob Low (not his real name) remembers how he spent Chinese New Year last year.
For reunion dinner, he had his favourite dishes like poon choi, a Hakka dish comprising pork, seafood and vegetables in a simmering pot.
He sang karaoke with his grandparents and played board games with his cousins.
The secondary school student travelled back to Taman Setia Indah, a suburb of Johor Bahru and was able to spend a few days there before returning to Singapore for classes.
But things are different this year. Due to COVID-19 border restrictions and quarantine protocols, the 14-year-old will be staying put in Singapore. This will be the first time he is spending Chinese New Year without his family.
“It is not possible to go home, serve quarantine in Johor, and then come back and serve 14 days of quarantine in Singapore. I would lose four weeks and will have fallen behind my classes,” he said.
He presently stays in a rented room at a HDB flat in Admiralty. He barely speaks to his fellow tenants or landlord, so there is a lack of warmth and togetherness that he has grown to associate with the festive season.
For reunion dinner, he will need to cook his own meal or order fast food.
“I might have instant noodles or just order McDonald’s, I have not decided,” he said. “It will be a simple meal.”
Jacob plans to spend the long weekend finishing homework and preparing for upcoming tests.
“It’s a good chance to catch up on revision. I will be alone anyway,” he said. “I will video call my family but of course it’s not the same as being there.”
Many Malaysians choose to study or work in Singapore because of the geographical proximity and multiple transport links between the two countries.
However, amid the pandemic, home now feels a world away. Routine travelling and commuting between Malaysia and Singapore has not been possible since March last year when border restrictions began to be enforced.
Since then, some of them have been hopeful that COVID-19 could be brought under control and the normality of daily commuting between the two countries could resume.
Yet, any lingering hopes of the border being reopened in time for the Chinese New Year holidays were dashed when Malaysia’s government announced recently that all states except Sarawak have been placed under Movement Control Order (MCO) again as the country grapples with the third wave of the pandemic.
Some Malaysians working in Singapore under the Periodic Commuting Arrangement (PCA) scheme may consider going home for home leave this Chinese New Year, but many are unwilling to do so because of the time spent and cost of serving quarantine on both sides of the border.
"WE KNEW IT WAS A FAR-FETCHED DREAM"
For some, the writing has been on the wall.
“For this year’s celebration, my wife and I were already mentally prepared that we wouldn’t be able to make it back, since the Malaysia cases started shooting up in the third quarter of 2020,” sales manager Eric Teng told CNA.
Mr Teng, 36, is from Johor Bahru but settled down in Singapore seven years ago. He used to commute on a weekly basis to see his parents.
“Back then, I could see them more often because I lived much closer than my sisters, who are based in the Klang Valley," he said. But it has been over 10 months since he has physically met his parents.
For Mr Hoe Heng Howe, a business development manager, he and his girlfriend were planning to travel back to Melaka. However, their plans were scuppered when the daily new cases surged recently to the thousands.
“That’s when we knew it was a far-fetched dream, and we guessed it was just a matter of time before they imposed a new MCO, as what just happened.”
“Moreover, our parents are in the higher-risk group for COVID-19, so we don’t want to introduce any more risk factors to an already worrying situation,” he added.
But the thought of missing family reunions still stung.
“Chinese New Year without family is like char kway teow without cockles, utterly pointless. But we still have to keep our spirits up and make the best of this tough period in our lives,” Mr Hoe said.
READ: Malaysia's traders anticipated a sales boom before Chinese New Year, but the MCO has dented their hopes
NEWBORN HAS YET TO MEET EXTENDED FAMILY
For investment analyst Joshua Goh, 35, travelling from Singapore to his hometown of Melaka once every two months was previously not an issue.
But since border restrictions were imposed in March 2020, Mr Goh, his wife and two young children have not been able to see the rest of their family.
For Mr Goh, not meeting up with the rest of his family for Chinese New Year 2021 hits even harder, as he and his wife have just welcomed their second child, a daughter, in mid-March 2020 before MCO was imposed.
Although his mother is now living with his family, other family members have only gotten a glimpse of their newest daughter via short online video conferences.
“It’s been a very different experience for our daughter compared to our son, because her first year growing up has been spent mostly indoors, compared to her brother, whom we were able to bring outdoors to parks and malls,” Mr Goh said.
When asked if they had considered travelling home to Malaysia amid the restrictions, Mr Goh said he and his wife were already psychologically prepared for the eventuality of spending Chinese New Year in Singapore.
He cited costs of the quarantine in hotels on both sides of the border as a key factor on why he would not be going home.
“Not to mention having the kids cooped up (in a hotel) for up to 28 days. It is asking a lot from the children,” he said.
"THE MONEY I EARN WILL HELP MY FAMILY"
Although spending Chinese New Year away from loved ones may be a somewhat lonely experience, confinement nanny Tay Ying Ying told CNA that the sacrifice is financially worthwhile.
Mdm Tay, who is from Sungai Petani in Kedah, is currently on a 3-month contract attached to a Singaporean family to help care for their newborn son.
"I will be away this year for Chinese New Year while my husband and children will be at home. I am used to this because my contract has coincided with festive celebrations before," said the 55-year-old.
"This year I don't mind working at all because it has been a tough year to get jobs. The money I earn from this job will help my family," added Mdm Tay.
Due to border restrictions, confinement nannies from Malaysia have gotten fewer assignments in Singapore over the past year.
READ: Fewer Malaysian confinement nannies in Singapore due to COVID-19, parents face higher costs in hiring
Moreover, Mdm Tay's family is financially affected by the pandemic as her husband is a taxi driver and COVID-19 has reduced demand for transport.
"I will spend Chinese New Year with the family I'm attached to in Toa Payoh this year. Not the same as feasting with my family but I am thankful they are including me in their celebrations," she added.
As gathering with their extended family is out of the question, those interviewed said they are planning to celebrate in other ways.
Mr Goh, the investment analyst, plans to meet friends in Singapore who are also unable to return to their respective countries.
“Actually, not just Malaysian Chinese, but (there are) groups of American or Australian Chinese, mainland Chinese and Hongkongers (who are not able to go back to their respective countries to celebrate),” Mr Goh said.
“So we’re meeting up with other ‘orphans’ as we jokingly call ourselves, and maybe have a few friends over for dinners and meet-ups," he added.
He plans to adhere to Singapore's Phase 3 regulations where social gatherings will be limited to eight people.
While missing out on his mother’s cooking will not be a problem since she is living with them, he added that he would miss other festive activities, such as going around visiting friends and family, as well as some light-hearted gambling between friends.
“It’s more about the fellowship and catching up with one another,” Mr Goh said.
Like other Malaysians stuck on the island, Mr Teng said he and his wife planned to host Malaysians who were unable to spend Chinese New Year with their families.
“I’m also planning to order some special Chinese New Year dishes, to make sure they don’t feel left alone at home, and we’re coordinating among ourselves to do a virtual lou-sang (prosperity toss),” he added.
EMPTY SEATS AT REUNION DINNERS IN MALAYSIA
Meanwhile, their family members back in Malaysia are also preparing themselves for more subdued celebrations.
Mr Hoe's mother, Mdm Cheong Hwi Bee, who is in Melaka, told CNA that empty chairs at her dining table for reunion dinner would not be easy to cope with.
“It’ll be difficult to get used to the house being empty this season,” said Mdm Cheong, 67.
“But it’s more important that Heng Howe stays safe ... Asking them to return ... it’s not worth it. Even if you come back for one day, you have to quarantine in both countries, you might not have a job once you come out of the quarantine hotel,” she noted.
Mdm Cheong acknowledged that she can still video call Mr Hoe. But it is not the same as seeing him in person, she said.
“After this, I think we’ll all appreciate the chance to get together as a family even more because of this sad season,” she remarked.
Mr Teng, the sales manager said: "After all this is over, we’re going to make up for the lost time, like take them (his parents) for a holiday to somewhere nice and just catch up. Our folks aren't getting any younger.”
His father remarked that it was disappointing that this year's celebration would be quiet, but that was a duly accepted fact.
"It'll be much scaled-down. I just wish this pandemic tide gets over, so my wife and I can see our children again. No matter how hard times get, they'll eventually pass too," the elder Mr Teng said.